NEW YORK -- Charter schools remain the subject of intense debate, particularly in New York City, where incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) won on a platform that was explicitly less friendly toward such schools than the policies of the outgoing mayor have been. But even as the political debate rages on, charter schools continue to grow dramatically throughout the country.
Overall, 1 in 20 students -- 2.3 million in total -- now attend charter schools, which represents an increase of 225,000 students over the 2012-13 school year. And that growth is particularly pronounced in urban areas, according to a new report released Tuesday by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools that looked at market share in cities with the highest number of charter schools.
According to the report, New Orleans, whose school system was rebuilt in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, has 79 percent of its students in charter schools, which are publicly funded but can be privately and independently run. For the first time, Detroit had more than half of its students in such schools, with 51 percent. Washington, D.C., is working its way there, with 43 percent of its students now in charter schools. The top six school districts with the highest rates of enrollment -- which also include Flint, Mich., Kansas City, Mo., and Gary, Ind. -- each have 30 percent or more of students in a charter school.
The nation's largest cities also have high numbers of charter school students, according to the report. Los Angeles has more than 120,000 students in charter schools, which the report notes is a group larger than 99.9 percent of school districts nationwide. Cities such as Philadelphia and New York have 10 percent or more of their students in charters. And New York City ranked among the top 10 cities for charter school growth for a second year in a row.
The growth is large, percentage-wise, but since some of the numbers started low, the statistics may be overstating the reality. For example, the report found that the number of districts with more than one-fifth of students in a charter school has increased by 350 percent over the last eight years -- but only seven districts had that level of enrollment eight years ago.
"It is significant when you see this dramatic of a growth. It says something is going on in those districts," said Nina Rees, who heads NAPCS. "If I were a district official, I would see how I would keep some of these students in the system ... The two sectors need to come together to find solutions that fit the needs of the entire district."
The news excited Andy Smarick, a former Bush administration official who supports charter schools and now works at the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners. But the growth hasn't happened as he expected it to.
Ten years ago, he recalls, proponents of the nascent charter school movement came to a consensus: If charter schools could reach 10 percent of market share in big cities, the movement would reach a tipping point and create enough pressure to spur public schools to improve in order to compete for students.
"That tipping-point pressure never materialized the way I expected," he said. "We have not seen districts drastically improve even when charter school market share gets to 25 percent ... You can't look at the performance of districts like Detroit or Gary and say, 'Now that charters have a significant market share, we've had a renaissance.' It just hasn't happened. I've given up on the idea."
"We can't say the competitive pressure has fundamentally improved what the district is doing," Smarick added. "This document forces us to have that conversation" and to consider the possibility that low-performing districts could transition a majority of their students to charter schools.
Others are also skeptical as to whether charter schools are living up to their promise of offering flexibility in exchange for greater accountability for students' results. "The findings are eye-popping, in terms of family demand for charter schools in the nation's largest cities," said Bruce Fuller, a University of California, Berkeley, education professor. "Let's hope that the average effectiveness of charters improves, and government devises a better way to regulate quality. Otherwise, the movement will become yet another false promise for millions of low-income families and their kids."
Overall, the performance of charter schools is mixed, according to the most comprehensive report on charter school quality, released this summer by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes. CREDO studied charter schools in 25 states and two cities, and found that performance among charter school students varies dramatically, but overall, students learn at roughly the same rates as their peers in public schools. According to the study, charter school students did end the school year with reading skills eight instructional days ahead of public school children, but with comparable math instruction.
According to other studies, charter schools have outperformed analogous public schools in some urban areas -- where the most vitriolic battles over the schools' future are still being waged.
In New York, outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg housed many new charter schools within the same buildings as functioning public schools, a process known as "co-location" that has spawned many dramatic public hearings. Bloomberg also did not require charter schools to pay rent for that space, a policy that de Blasio has said he would revisit.
The market share study also has tremendous implications for students with special needs in the nation's largest cities. Charter schools have been known to offer fewer services to such students, in part because economies of scale make offering those services expensive for charter schools. But as charter schools provide an increasingly greater share of urban education, the options may dwindle for students with special needs. "More families are going [to charter schools], and we have to deal with the tough questions that come along with it," Smarick said, though he added these concerns are sometimes overblown.
Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University who has audited charter schools for several states, has found that more and more charter schools are privately run -- not by charter school boards, but by nonprofit and for-profit management organizations. According to a recent study Miron authored, 908,000 students attended a privately managed school in the 2011-12 school year, up from 733,000 a year earlier.
"These are supposed to be publicly operated schools. But whether [an education management company] has 91 schools or one school ... they employ the public school employees directly," he said. "So we don't have much of a public school left."